the U.S. Constitution and the Framer's belief that anyone who faces the
awesome power of governmentÉ deserves an advocate to stand up to that
government. Doesn't the history of our country prove that the government
is not always right?"
5-15% of the agents I deal with are untrustworthy, but you get to know
very quickly who they are."
Related Articles in this Issue
Law & Order in America:
Defending Church Burners and Taxpayers, Riggs Is Counterpuncher for the Constitution
On February 25, 1999, federal agents from 11 states converged on Indianapolis to question and investigate the most notorious criminal suspect of the new year.
Thirty-six-year-old Jay Ballinger was charged with burning down seven churches in Indiana and had allegedly confessed to 50 other church arsons across the country. Georgia officials believed he was connected to a church blaze there that had killed a firefighter. Ballinger's alleged calling cardsatanic symbols desecrating the burned out churchesled to media reports chronicling how he had enticed teenaged girls into pledging their souls to the devil and signing the pacts in blood.
As Ballinger lay in an Indianapolis hospital recovering from burns allegedly suffered while torching yet another church, a Wabash man stood by his hospital bed, determined to protect the suspect's rights.
Steve Riggs '81 is accustomed to taking on clients noone else will touch. As U.S. Southern District Assistant Federal Defender, Riggs is appointed by the court to represent indigent defendants accused of federal criminal offenses. His clients have ranged from inner city gang members charged with violent crimes to ordinary Americans charged with tax evasion; from the lead defendant in the second largest federal cocaine prosecution in U.S. history to a man facing deportation and lifelong separation from his family simply for possessing two counterfeit bills.
Riggs puts in 70-hour weeks cross-examining federal agents and negotiating with members of the U.S. Attorney's office, some of whom "see themselves as society's agents committed to crushing criminals, and others who are more open to learning about the client's situation and possible lesser penalties." He has to know "which prosecutors and federal agents are trustworthy, and which ones should not be trusted but challenged in open court."
Sometimes he serves as counselor or social worker to clients, often trying to reduce sentences to hold families together or prevent children from being placed in foster care.
It's not a job you do for the money. And Riggs speaks and writes of his unpopular vocation with conviction.
"The question I'm most often asked is 'How do you represent someone you know is guilty?' The fact that I hear that question over and over again demonstrates the public's misperception about my role in two ways," Riggs insists. "First, I don't just represent my clients, I represent the U.S. Constitution and the Framer's belief that anyone who faces the awesome power of governmentan entity with virtually unlimited resources and coercive leverage over people's livesdeserves an advocate: an advocate to stand up to the government, challenge it to justify its actions, and scrutinize the means by which it seeks to use force or the ability to incarcerate against individual citizens.
"Second, I don't know that someone is guilty just because they are charged. Only God, the accused, or 12 members of a jury can say whether my client is guilty. When I first meet my client, I don't go in and say 'tell me what happened and I'll personally judge you and decide whether I want to represent you.' No, I explain the system and then what the government says he or she did and take it from there. Many times my clients are vastly overcharged in federal court so that law enforcement can issue a hearty, self-congratulatory press release. Who am I to say someone I don't know is guilty? Doesn't the history of our country prove that the government is not always right?"
Though he is quick to point out that the vast majority of federal agents he cross-examines are truthful and very reliable, Riggs says there are officers who "stretch the truth, who lie, who see themselves as above the law and somehow able to falsely testify in order to convict my clients. Only 5-15% of the agents I deal with are untrustworthy, but you get to know very quickly who they are." Riggs says he's found them in every city and state he's worked"in Texas, Washington, D.C., San Diego, and in Indianapolis."
"Sooner or later," Riggs says, "I usually catch repeat liars and, like a pit bull, I don't let go."
One such incident left Riggs fearing for his safety.
"In San Diego, I proved in a lengthy hearing that a Drug Enforcement Agency agent and San Diego deputy sheriff lied under oath to a federal judge," Riggs recalls. "After court, I refused to advise the client to accept a sweetheart deal from the government. They had to dismiss the case or I would pursue charges of perjury." About a week later Riggs was stopped by several San Diego deputy sheriffs outside of his home.
"I was scared I'd be beaten or drugs would be planted on me, but it was just a show of force," Riggs says. The incident remains an object lesson to him.
"If we want those arrested and prosecuted to respect the rule of law and honestly admit to their own conduct, we should never allow police officers to feel they are above the law or able to pick and choose who to arrest and incarcerate. People should only be imprisoned for unlawful acts fairly proven in a court of law."